A mother whose son suffered severe brain damage after being given the MMR vaccine as a baby has been awarded £90,000 compensation.
By Laura Donnelly, Health Correspondent Published: 8:00AM BST 29 Aug 2010
Jackie Fletcher has campaigned for compensation for her son Robert – now 18 – because she believed his severe epilepsy was triggered by the jab.
Now a tribunal has ordered that the payment be made, after concluding that it could be "no coincidence" that he suffered his first seizure 10 days after being vaccinated.
All injections carry the risk of extreme reactions, and in rare cases, children have been left brain-damaged by them.
The Vaccine Damage Payment Scheme does not examine the safety of particular jabs, but the likelihood that the process caused a reaction.
However, the payout for damage following a MMR jab the first to be known about since a major public scare about its safety, following research in 1998 that suggested the vaccine caused autism. The study, now discredited, provoked widespread public concerns about the safety of the vaccine.
The payment agreed by the Government compensation scheme is likely to reignite the debate over the safety of common childhood vaccines.
Robert Fletcher, from Warrington, in Cheshire, is unable to talk, stand unaided or feed himself. He suffered the effects after being given the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine when he was 13 months old.
In a six-page judgment, the panel which examined the case said: 'Robert was a more or less fit boy who, within the period usually considered relevant to immunisation, developed a severe convulsion ... and he then went on to be epileptic and severely retarded. The seizure occurred ten days after the vaccination. In our view, this cannot be put down to coincidence."
The panel said the reaction only happened because the child had a genetic predisposition to epilepsy, but said that "on the balance of probabilities" the vaccination triggered the onset of the condition.
Mrs Fletcher said she believed the compensation award was the first to a surviving MMR-damaged person since controversy erupted in 1998 when the now discredited Dr Andrew Wakefield raised concerns about a possible link between the combined MMR injection and autism.
Mrs Fletcher runs pressure group JABS – Justice, Awareness and Basic Support. Around 2,000 families seeking compensation for their vaccine-damaged children are registered with the group, which provides advice and support.
'My husband John and I have battled for 18 years for the cause of Robert's disability to be officially recognised,' she said.
'We were told the vaccine was perfectly safe. Like most people, we trusted what the doctors and nurses were putting to us.
'Robert is nearly 19 but mentally he is like a 14-month-old toddler. He can't stand unaided and he is doubly incontinent.
'He can't speak except to say "Hi, Mum" or "Hi, Daddy".
Her first application for compensation was rejected in 1997 on the grounds that it was impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt what had caused Robert's illness.
But Mrs Fletcher appealed and in a ruling delivered last week, a new panel of experts came to a different conclusion.
The one-day hearing last week was chaired by a barrister sitting with two doctors. While one said the child would have developed epilepsy regardless of whether he had been given the vaccine, he was overruled by his two colleagues.
The panel said that the judgement was specific to the particular case and should not be seen as a precedent. It underlined in particular that the ruling had no relevance to the question of a link between MMR vaccine and autism.
Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, a London GP whose own son is autistic, said: 'It is a very important principle that parents should be compensated in cases of this kind.
'But although a causal link has been established in law in this instance, exhaustive scientific research has failed to establish any link between MMR and brain damage.
This case should not make parents feel any different about the safety of the vaccine".'
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "This decision reflects the opinion of a tribunal on the specific facts of the case and they were clear that it should not be seen as a precedent for any other case. The safety of MMR has been endorsed through numerous studies in many countries. Thankfully, more parents are having their children vaccinated with MMR and consider it as safe as other childhood vaccines.
A spokesman for the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which collects data on adverse reactions to drugs and vaccines, said although the vaccine could, on rare occasions, cause a temporary fever fit, there remained no confirmed evidence that these caused long-term brain injury.
He added: "The benefits of MMR vaccine in preventing serious and life threatening infections far outweigh any known side effects of the vaccine".